Europe News

EU plans to send more border guards to Macedonia-Greece border

Duncan Robinson in Amsterdam

EU member states have hammered out details of a controversial plan to send more border guards and even troops to Macedonia's border with Greece in a bid to stem the flow of migrants entering northern Europe.

Tightening the border between Macedonia and Greece has become a popular plan in both Brussels and Berlin as well as the bulk of countries along the so-called western Balkans route, although it is opposed by Athens.

Migrants walk towards the transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, after entering the country by crossing the border with Greece, September 11, 2015.
Ognen Teofilovski | Reuters

Just over 67,000 people have entered Europe via Greece so far this year as the numbers of arrivals show no sign of slowing. Diplomats fear that this figure will increase over the coming weeks due to the deterioration of the situation in Syria.

Officials from a number of countries involved in the talks — which include Greece, Turkey and countries from the former Yugoslavia — have raised the possibility of member states sending troops to the Macedonian side of the border with Greece in a bid to control or even "hermetically seal" the border, according to diplomats.

The plan, which was first floated by Slovenia last month, is particularly contentious as it appears to involve EU member states siding with non-EU member Macedonia against its historic rival Greece, which is an EU member. Until now, bilateral aid to Macedonia has involved countries such as Hungary sending civilian staff.

Speaking before the meeting in Amsterdam began, Peter Szijjarto, the foreign minister of Hungary, said: "What we think is that the European Union is defenceless from the south."

"If Greece is not ready or able to protect the Schengen zone and does not accept any help or assistance from the EU, then we need another defence line, which is obviously Macedonia and Bulgaria," said Mr Szijjarto.

Officials are wary of tit-for-tat border closures triggering a humanitarian disaster in the historically unstable Balkan region, with refugees trapped in small countries unable to cope with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people.

If Greece is not ready or able to protect the Schengen zone and does not accept any help or assistance from the EU, then we need another defense line.

- Peter Szijjarto, Hungarian foreign minister

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has long-argued that Greece should not be turned into a "black box" for refugees. Diplomats in northern Europe, however, are keen on the idea of Greece becoming a de facto refugee camp for the rest of the bloc, with arrivals then distributed among other member states.

Bert Koenders, foreign minister of the Netherlands, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, warned that the crisis was putting strain on the diplomatic relations between Balkan states. "There is a lot of tension there — there is a cascade model, in which different individual nations have taken different decisions. Now we need to work together."

Plans to share the burden more equally have flopped so far. A scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to the rest of the EU has so far resulted in fewer than 500 people being moved.

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Countries such as Austria have warned that they will close their borders to arriving migrants unless a solution is found. Vienna has already introduced a cap of 37,500 on the number of asylum seekers it is prepared to accept.

Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, implored countries in the region to avoid border closures. "I don't think [closing borders] is a solution," she said.